A recent ABC radio program titled Robot lawyers could make time-consuming, expensive court conflict thing of the past outlined a brave new world where artificial intelligence technologies can ‘mediate everything’ including divorce and child custody. A Dutch program has been introduced in Canada to resolve debt and tenancy issues, and in the Netherlands it is used to sort out family law issues, including child support. Where the matter was sensitive, it could be referred to a ‘trusted advisor’ who would act as an online mediator.
This program, and other online methods of dispute resolution, are touted as empowering clients and promoting access to justice for those who cannot afford to litigate and who don’t qualify for legal aid, and thus ultimately enhancing democracy.
The recent KPMG report for the Commonwealth Attorney General Future Focus of the Family Services also explores the benefits of online technologies for resolving family disputes. Telephone and online dispute resolution of family disputes are already firmly embedded in family services provided to rural and remote clients, and the report notes that in an increasingly digital world, ‘agencies and their providers can adapt and use technology to engage with citizens in shifting business models from reactive, to proactive or customer driven’. Digital or online services may enhance accessibility for people in remote locations, but also benefit shift workers, at home parents, those at risk of violence and people with disabilities, the report argues. There is no doubt there is enormous potential here for greater access and immediacy, and for reducing costs for the community and disputants, and even for promoting safety, but there are also risks that need to be carefully evaluated.
The issues relating to online dispute resolution are not dissimilar to those associated with dispute resolution generally, although the online context may exacerbate or minimize some of these risks. The National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council considered some of these in 2002 in its Dispute Resolution and Information Technology Principles for Good Practice. Using the framework often used for evaluating dispute resolution it discussed some of the risks:
- Accessibility: whilst access will be enhanced for some, some who are vulnerable may not be able to access such resources or the tools to access them, especially those with low literacy, older people, from some cultural communities. The access of those in rural and remote areas will depend on the reliability of high bandwidth telecommunications.
- Fairness: NADRAC notes ‘Information technology may neutralise some sources of power through removing some of the dynamic associated with face to face communication.’ Some parties may be empowered, but in other situations power imbalance may be created or exacerbated. Those unfamiliar with the technology may be pressured into decisions. Men, who often communicate for factual information, may be favoured over women whose communication preference is generally relational, as this may not be well supported by online technologies. Where parties are remotely located one or both may ‘more effectively mask their feelings, delay responses or manipulate the environment’, and the mediator not be able to respond appropriately or even handedly if they are not able to read the parties as effectively as if they were in the same room. It may be more difficult for the mediator to establish impartiality and trust in an online context.
- Effectiveness: this begs the question of effectiveness for whom? From a party perspective, online DR may be quick, accessible and cost effective, and ‘cheaper’ justice is also a positive community outcome. If self determination is the key objective of mediation, then online communication may sometimes facilitate this (it may assist parties to slow down, reflect and focus on issues rather than personalities, and feel safer) or obstruct it (because nuance is lost, complex emotions not conveyed, or communication is stilted or constrained, and a sense of finality and formality absent). If the full communication and closure is not achieved, then outcomes may also be compromised.
So whilst there are benefits to online dispute resolution, and even robotic determination of disputes, we must ultimately consider whether these processes are likely to achieve party self determination. Self determination assumes the parties are autonomous and rational decision makers. Participation is voluntary and direct, and the parties control the content and outcomes where they make voluntary, consensual and informed decisions. The degree of voluntariness will vary depending on the legal frameworks governing the dispute. Informed consent will be achieved if online dispute resolvers, including robotic ones, and service providers can ensure:
- parties are educated about the nature, purpose and processes of the dispute resolution and any factors that will affect the process;
- that parties understanding this information; and
- that the dispute resolver continues to monitor party consent, especially if either is unrepresented, or if their capacity or autonomy is compromised or influenced in some way, or where their participation may not be voluntary.
If these standards are able to be achieved, then online dispute resolution may be able to achieve it’s participatory, cost saving and self determinative goals.